Thursday, 30 October 2014

FEATURE: Shocktober - The Conjuring

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.


If you've been following these reviews all month, you'll know that haunted houses are an easy way to scare me if a film does it well and if not, a quick way to turn me off if it's done badly. In order to provide you with a bit of context for what I have to say about The Conjuring, I have to admit I've not been as convinced by James Wan's output as some people. His two major horror contributions to date have been solid, if not particularly exemplary. Saw was an intriguing premise made a good deal better by a killer twist and undone in subsequent sequels whilst I'm one of those people who feels that Insidious' strong build-up was undone by a batshit crazy third act. Insidious 2? Well, that was more a horror mash-up than a movie within its own right. 

Now in contrast to these films, The Conjuring feels like a horror film-maker at the top of his game, spinning out and subverting cliches to produce something really quite remarkable. It's based on the true story (though how true you think it is probably depends on your levels of scepticism) of the Perron family who experienced a series of disturbances at their home and called in paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren to help. They quickly discover the house has been the location for plenty of nasty occurrences over the years and the source appears to be a witch who sacrificed herself to the Devil.

Watching this film in close proximity to Dark Skies filled me marginally with dread as I approached this viewing. Hackneyed haunted house stories are just so dull and I wasn't sure I could put up with another one. However, The Conjuring proved me wrong at every turn. The film builds the suspense slowly and carefully, establishing the family and their dynamics as well as those of the Warrens before anything spooky starts to happen. It's simple stuff really, but this early groundwork pays off because when everything does start to go south, there's an emotional bond with these characters. You understand their decisions and why they sometimes make silly ones like investigating the dodgy boarded-up cellar. 

Across the Wan films mentioned here, family is a key theme. In Insidious, it's the near loss of a son that unites them against the dark spirit trying to steal him away whilst in Saw, returning to family is one character's primary motivation for doing something really horrific to himself to escape. It crops up again in The Conjuring and whilst I won't go into too many details, it's the destruction of family that is the supernatural force's biggest threat, particularly related to the actions of the parents, and it is in their homes that they find themselves under attack. The performances here are exceptionally good, especially the maternal strength of Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga in their roles and the connections they have with Ron Livingston and Patrick Wilson portraying their respective husbands. It's these relationships that carry the emotional core of the film and everything is that bit scarier because these people are so lovely.

I've spoken before about the concept of places and how to make them seem threatening. The family home is usually seen as a place of safety, which is why haunted house or home invasion narratives are often so chilling. Wan is particularly inventive in this respect, utilising the camera to disorientate the viewer and make the house seem completely unknowable. You fly through doorways, hang upside down on ceilings and crash through walls. In some scenes, it even feels as if you're allied with the supernatural beings themselves, so obscure is your viewpoint on the proceedings. It also helps to throw you off the scent; there are moments when something is kept in focus and you are absolutely sure something's about to make you jump and then... it doesn't. Wan cuts away and continues to ramp up the tension and when that scare comes, the payoff feels that much bigger.

And it's only the second film this month to pass the 'pause and make a cup of tea' test. And if that isn't a recommendation, I don't know what is.

- Becky

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FEATURE: Shocktober - Triangle

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

To describe the plot of Triangle is to give away the film's biggest asset, a sense of constant and necessary bewilderment. Describing the set up, in which single mother Jess is invited on a sailing trip by a friend which goes badly wrong, is much easier, but anything after that starts giving too much away. It doesn't lay the explanations for any of the film's events on thick either; they simply happen and it is left to your own conclusions as to why. In narratives such as this, there's a fine line between frustrating and fascinating. Fortunately, Triangle manages to stay just the right side of this.

It's aided by a great central performance from Melissa George. I'm not traditionally the actress' biggest fan, but she's excellent here, handling an extremely demanding role that calls for a wide variety of emotions and reactions with ease. The supporting cast doesn't quite match up to George and range from marginally sympathetic to entirely dispensible. It works within the context of the film though and really, a stronger supporting cast would have distracted from Jess' central conflict.

The film around Jess is constructed very cleverly with Christopher Smith utilising its repetitive nature to produce something increasingly inventive. Smith explores cause and effect through a series of mounting set pieces that intersect and interlink effortlessly. It's a heady mix that offers as many puzzles as it does solutions and Smith is an assured hand guiding the audience through. Compared to his earlier work, the wry and blackly comic Severance, Triangle is a much more serious affair. In an earlier review of Snowtown, I spoke about films which were experiences. Although vastly different to that film, Triangle feels very similar. It's designed to put the audience through the wringer and force them to ask questions about not only what's going on, but how they would react in a particular situation.

There's a wider commentary here about the cyclical nature of human behaviour. We fall into patterns, hang out with similar friends and go through the same daily motions without really stopping to analyse why we do them. These patterns can be healthy and a sense of routine is often necessary for people to feel safe and secure in their daily lives. In others, this routine is much more depressing, a way in which people are trapped into behaving a certain way because it's what they're used to and how they function. Triangle uses this to quite chilling effect in the film's closing moments, answering one set of questions only to ask a whole new set before ending.

Sadly, this payoff isn't quite as satisfying as the events preceding it, but not because it asks those questions at the end without any intention of answering them. It's more that the film sets up the ending so well, building the tension and tightening the screws on Jess so much that her final scenes feel cold, and anti-climactic. It doesn't detract too much from the overall quality of the film itself; it's just a shame that it doesn't match up to what has gone before.

Thanks to a strong central performance and a sharp execution of the central concept, Triangle is a memorable experience and a puzzle that needs to be watched a few times to be unravelled. 

- Becky

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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

FEATURE: Shocktober - House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.


Throwing a macabre party for his wife Annabelle, millionnaire Frederick Loren gathers five strangers to the eponymous house and offers them $10,000 if they can make it through the night. The only catch is that one of the guests, the consistently drunk Pritchard, is adamant that ghosts walk the halls and look for more victims to join their number. As the freaky coincidences mount and nerves fray, a body appears and everyone starts pointing fingers.

Now this is more like it.

Loosely based on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, House on Haunted Hill is more interested at first in establishing the dynamics between its characters before it starts piling on the mystery. We learn quickly of Loren's antagonistic relationship with his wife and she quickly sows seeds of doubt in the minds of the party guests by stating she suspects him of trying to murder them. There's more than a little hint that Lance Schroeder and Nora Manning are attracted to each other whilst Dr Trent offers an element of cynicism to the proceedings. Pritchard meanwhile gets increasingly drunk and desperate as the events progress.

When the guests begin exploring the house, the film makes a brilliant use of light and shade to bring about some interesting scares, like Nora's encounter with the housekeeper in the wine cellar. These tricks may now be as old as they come, but in a film like this which prizes atmosphere over cheap shocks, they work particularly well. Same too for the bloody spots on her hand that plagues newspaper columunist Ruth throughout the film, followed around by a bloodstained ceiling. Ghostly apparitions appear at windows, walls give way for people to fall through them and dead bodies move about their house seemingly of their own volition.

The soundscape of the film is also very effective, relying on thunderclaps to punctuate some of the more dramatic scenes towards the climax or the noises of the house itself. The macabre tone is also set in the opening moments, a pitch black screen where only terrified screams and maniacal laughter can be heard. Whilst it might not be as effective as it once was in cinema and before audiences became extremely savvy, it's still a cracking way to kick off a film and perfectly establishes the atmosphere moving forward. The score is beautiful too, a low, ominous undercurrent that carries its own clues to the twists in the narrative.

It also helps it enormously that there is a blackly comic sense of humour running throughout the film, largely down to the performances. Vincent Price is as reliable as ever as the overseer of the proceedings, convinced his wife is after his millions whilst Carol Ohmart as Annabelle is wonderful in opposition to him, trading barb for barb. Carolyn Craig also exhibits a magnificent capacity for screaming as the poor, maligned Nora, the target for much of the ghostly goings on in the film and Elisha Cook's Pritchard dispenses ominous warnings with ease.

There are a couple of moments in which it shows its age, particularly in some of the special effects and recycled shots used. There's also a scene in which it takes an absolute age for a death to come about, one that could have easily been escaped from. However, it's these little bits that add to the charm of it all. House on Haunted Hill may be 55 years old, but it has lost none of its bite over the years, producing a chilling, blackly comic and at times, pretty unnerving film. Remember kids, if Vincent Price invites you over to stay, politely decline and run away.

- Becky

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FEATURE: Shocktober - Dark Skies

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list hereMinor spoilers for the actions of stupid people.


Recommended to me by our very own Jen, Dark Skies is the second in a science fiction horror hybrid double that began with the previous Shocktober film, The Bay. The Barrett family are your typical suburban household; there's a slightly fraught marriage as a result of financial woes, a son on the border of rebellion and a cute younger son with no discernible personality. One night, the mother, Lacy, comes downstairs to discover their fridge has been invaded by someone who ate all of their fruit and vegetables and left it scattered all over the floor. It's only the start of several mysterious events.

Suburban horror and the haunted house has really made a comeback in the genre in the past few years in films such as Paranormal Activity, using found footage, and Insidious (connected to this film by producer), which plays with the idea that it's not the house that's haunted but the person. Dark Skies messes with these ideas, but adds a sci-fi spin on it, in that there's no ghost occupying either house or person, but aliens instead. It feels like this should be an original approach and mark the film out as something different. Instead, it's used to present the same old cliches again and again, but hey, look, aliens!

The film makes effective use of its suburban home location; odd camera angles and movements in the night time scenes add to the disturbing quality, rendering it unfamiliar. Shadows are also used well and the house itself, before any of the reveals, feels unfriendly and unwelcoming. Even in daylight, the house isn't particularly friendly, but I think that's more to do with the really dull decor than anything supposed to induce horror. There's a couple of decent shocks in there too, but it becomes far too reliant on the music to make the audience jump than anything actually shocking on screen which signals a rather hackneyed approach.

The suspense builds steadily, but for all intents and purposes, it feels a bit by rote to the point where several of the creepier moments are foreshadowed (including the film's twist) and the cliches start to pile on pretty thick. Chief amongst this is the cynical father versus the increasingly desperate mother. Some put an interesting spin on it and others don't. Dark Skies immediately falls into the latter category, putting Keri Russell through the proverbial wringer with little effect on the emotional resonance of the film. There isn't enough work put into the character for her continued plight to have the desired effect. Of course, he does eventually go along with her crazy alien theory, but it was kind of hard to care.

Even a late appearance by JK Simmons can't really save it, even though he does give good conspiracy nut. He does mean the film takes on another current that becomes more overt as the film goes on; the way in which to stop these aliens is to keep the family together and get them to move somewhere else. Yes. Stopping them isn't exactly stopping them, it's sending them after another family instead. Not particularly neighbourly. And after repeating Simmons' warning that the family needs to stick together, what's the first thing they do? Split up. 

Sorry Jen, I fear our tastes differ greatly on this one. Traditionally speaking, haunted house narratives, with aliens or otherwise, tend to freak me out rather a lot. Unfortunately, Dark Skies isn't one of them. There simply isn't enough originality in what it's attempting to do for it to work. The sci-fi spin is neat, but ultimately just an excuse to rehash tired cliches. 

- Becky

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FEATURE: Shocktober - The Bay

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.



There's a certain sense of horror already built into a contagion-based film and none more so than in the present climate of Ebola epidemics and media scares. The Bay follows a contained outbreak in Claridge, Maryland during the town's 4th July celebrations. It is composed almost entirely of footage captured during the day by various people including a local reporter (who narrates the film), local law enforcement, hospital staff and people at the CDC who are contacted in an attempt to solve the problem.

Whilst Stephen King's novel concerns a superflu and not a parasite as it is in The Bay, there was a lot about the found footage style of Barry Levinson's film that reminded me of a certain section of The Stand in which King traces the various different reactions to the ongoing plague. There are several chapters which work as a series of vignettes, chronicling the spread of the plague itself and tracing infections, another detailing the breakdown of society and a further one which follows the fates of several people who don't feature in the main plot. It's an extremely successful technique that gives the book a more over-reaching feel. In its found footage, The Bay does something similar within the narrow confines of Claridge and beyond to the reactions of the CDC and others trying to contain and silence the problem.

Like The Stand before it hits the big cosmic elements, The Bay traces several main characters through the footage that they have recorded alongside characters who appear maybe once or twice in the entire narrative. As a result, there are a few characters whose story you attach to, but largely, the more horrific stuff comes in those smaller moments, people in isolation who have no idea what is happening to them or why. This is in turn punctuated by the narrator's description of events and her reports from the day itself, in which she was supposed to be covering the 4th July celebrations and not, as she eventually does, a deadly parasitic outbreak.

There a lot of elements at play, both in terms of narrative and theme, but Levinson manages to keep everything together to produce something eerily effective. Hubristic local governments take the most flak, particularly the Mayor who repeatedly ignores the warnings of the oceanographic team investigating high toxicity levels in the bay. Likewise, those talking about shutting down the town and keeping its small nature in perspective. In short, there aren't many people so it's easier to keep quiet. In contrast, there's a quiet heroism to the actions of the police officers and medical staff who are followed throughout the film as they attempt to keep everyone calm and deal with the situation.

It also raises intriguing questions about the way in which humans treat their local environment and how, on occasion, it likes to bite back. The isopods responsible for the deaths of a large amount of Claridge's population evolve because of the dumping of waste into the bay. There is a radiation leak that is also mentioned and the industrial plant nearby that are also mentioned as possible sources of the rapid growth. In an age where environmental decline and climate change are topics still hotly contested and dismissed by too many people in a position to solve the problem, Levinson's particular brand of eco-horror cuts pretty keenly.

The Bay is an effective little film and, like earlier found footage films I've seen this month, a very efficient use of the technique. Plus, the thought of being eaten from the inside out? Bleurgh.

- Becky

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Sunday, 26 October 2014

TV REVIEW: Doctor Who - In the Forest of the Night

In a slightly unusual earth-bound story, this week’s episode of Doctor Who, ‘In The Forest of the Night’, conceptually at least, was something a little bit different.  

One morning, the human race, and specifically for our story, those living in London (an interesting pairing with last week’s Bristol specific episode), wake up to find that the entire city and indeed the entire world, has been taken over by a giant forest, seemingly overnight. This includes Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Danny (Samuel Anderson) who have taken some of the children of Coal Hill School’s bogus ‘Gifted and Talented’ group for a ‘Night at the Museum’ style sleepover. It isn’t long before they realise that, not only is the outside world not quite how they left it the night before, but that they are missing a child, one Maebh, played excellently by Abigail Eames.

Maebh is in actual fact with The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) having found her way to him after being plagued by thoughts she can’t be rid of following the trauma of her older sister’s disappearance – a strong, complex idea to place in the hands of a child actor, but Abigail deals with it extraordinarily well. The Doctor, characteristically displeased that he, once again, appears to have been left babysitting one of Clara’s students, albeit a potentially interesting one, calls her, and in so doing beings the two groups of the story to the Tardis together, not to mention several more schoolchildren.

But what are the trees? What does their presence mean for the Earth? And what exactly has this got to do with Maebh?

The episode sets about to answer these questions, the first two of which are answered well, the latter lesser so. In concept, this was a strong episode, with ‘everyone’s nightmare’, of the dark forest (although this felt a bit of a steal from the common nightmares of ‘Listen’, earlier in the series) serving as just one of the fairy-tale tropes of an episode which also featured CGI wolves and a little girl in a red hooded coat. This glorious sense of the uncanny is heightened further by the lovely shots of vine covered London landmarks, as well as the escaped animals from London Zoo, which themselves blended in well with the episode's ecological ideas.

Speaking of which, I for one would have liked to have seen far more of those. The fact that The Doctor is unable to use his sonic screwdriver for help against natural organisms, including the trees themselves, citing, "Not everything can be fixed with a screwdriver. It's not a magic wand", added a strand of genuine peril to what was an otherwise monster free zone. 

Meanwhile, other areas of the episode just seemed to have been set up as giant solar-flare shaped plot devices designed to reveal the current state of the various relationships in the series at the moment, namely Clara, The Doctor and Danny. The endless lies and bickering about The Doctor, which seems to form the centre of Clara and Danny’s relationship is starting to grow tiresome, although fortunately it does seem as if she’s going to be forced to make a decision soon, if only when she’s finished her marking, whilst The Doctor’s view of Danny seems unchanged.

This was, however, an episode which gave plenty more opportunities for the consistently brilliant Capaldi to act alongside children, a rewarding running theme of this series, with him disappointed that they don’t seem especially interested in the fact that the Tardis is bigger on the inside. This showed us that, whilst in character, Capaldi’s Doctor is much harsher and colder than previous incarnations, in Tardis at least, he is much more welcoming.

The subplot of the missing child worked reasonably well as an emotional pull, but we weren’t left feeling terribly clear as to how exactly Maebh fit in with it all. I’m willing to bet that this will become a memorable episode in years to become, but as ‘that one with the forest’, rather the one with a missing older sister. 

Still, it was great to learn just a teensy but more about the link between Clara and the enigmatic Missy (Michelle Gomez), as we get the sense that this episode was very much positioned as the relative ‘calm before the storm’, next week’s episode being the beginnings of finale territory.  

All in all an enjoyable forty five minutes of television, just not necessarily the most successful and enjoyable episode of Doctor Who.

Although it seems we will FINALLY learn more about Missy next week to make up for it – look out for Becky’s review of the action…


Jen

@jenniferklarge

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Friday, 24 October 2014

FEATURE: Shocktober - A Horrible Way To Die

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

Serial killers are very old hat now when it comes to horrors, thrillers and chillers, but there's still the odd film that crops up every now and again to bring something new to this particular character brand. A Horrible Way to Die attempts this by presenting AJ Bowen's very domestic serial killer, Garrick Turrell (something which has also recently been explored in Stephen King's A Good Marriage and the short story on which it is based) and his relationship with his girlfriend. Played by Amy Seimetz, Sarah is an alcoholic whose drunken state ensures a lack of awareness when it comes to her boyfriend's violent moonlighting. Their addictions and the conflicts that result are paralleled throughout the film; his for killing women, hers for the bottle.

The performances elevate the film somewhat, rising out of the dullness by giving these characters a real sense of dimension. Seimetz in particular is excellent as the fractured and downtrodden Sarah. Her tentative romance with a fellow alcoholic from her meetings, played by Joe Swanberg, is disarmingly sweet at first and their sense of shared difficulties adds an extra layer of pathos. As the serial killer at the centre of the piece, AJ Bowen is all the more sinister because of how non-threatening he appears to be

There are a few successful attempts to make strong links between Garrick and Sarah's respective trials and tribulations. When he is preparing to make his escape from the police car transporting him, the film segues into Sarah's lunch date with Swanberg's Kevin, her attempt to escape from her old relationship into a new one. However, overall, the film is rather hackneyed in its approach, stumbling around without any sense of urgency or purpose. The minimalist score seems designed to do exactly this, but the film is too quiet, too fractured for it to have any effect.

When the violence does come, it's a bit of a relief and the ending does go some way to elevating what has gone before. There's a couple of twists in there, one that I saw coming very early on and another that I missed completely. That final switcheroo is neatly done and ties together the somewhat disparate story threads to resolve the film in a satisfying manner. It's a shame then that this same creativity isn't consistent throughout and it never really goes anywhere with the links between the respective addictions of Sarah and Garrick which is where my primary interest lay.

I'm all for grim and bleak, as you'll have seen over the course of this month, and my tolerance for slow-burners is pretty high. But there has to be something to latch on to within that, which this film can't provide. There's shades of the wit and inventiveness that Wingard and Barrett would later bring to You're Next and one of this year's finest films, The Guest (and I suspect I've been somewhat spoiled by the latter), but the experimentation with narrative staples here doesn't feel as assured, nor as effective.

- Becky

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